What to do when we are about to face a difficult situation, even a threat to our wellbeing, such as a lawsuit, or a disease? Seneca tells Lucilius in Letter XXIV that most people would counsel their friends to think positive, as we would say today, to fix their attention on the hopefully likely good outcome, trying to steer the mind away from the negative possibilities. But that’s not what the Stoic philosopher tells his friend to do:
“But what I will do is lead you down a different road to tranquility. If you want to be rid of worry, then fix your mind on whatever it is that you are afraid might happen as a thing that definitely will happen. Whatever bad event that might be, take the measure of it mentally and so assess your fear. You will soon realize that what you fear is either no great matter or not long lasting.” (XXIV.2)
This is what Bill Irvine, in his A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, calls “negative visualization,” even though Don Robertson, who is familiar with the modern version of the technique in cognitive behavioral therapy, points out that strictly speaking the Stoics thought the only negative (memeaning truly bad) thing that could befall someone is to act unvirtuously. Be that as it may, the idea is not to indulge in negative thoughts for their own sake, and even less so to dwell on possible tragedies that may struck us. Rather, it’s a matter of being mentally prepared for the worst, in order not to be shocked if and when it comes. As Seneca himself says elsewhere, a prepared mind is better able to withstand an unfavorable turn of events.
The letter continues with a series of example of people who have embraced a difficult situation with courage, including Publius Rutilius Rufus, who was exiled to Smyrna when he was falsely accused of extortion of the populations of the province of Asia, which he was actually trying to protect; and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica, who was defeated by Caesar along with Cato and decided to commit suicide, famously departing from his soldiers with a nonchalant “Imperator se bene habet” (“Your general’s just fine”). But of course the greatest example of them all is the philosophical father of all the Hellenistic philosophies, including Stoicism:
“Socrates lectured while in prison, and although there were people there to arrange an escape, he refused to leave; instead, he stayed, meaning to do away with humankind’s two greatest fears: death and imprisonment.” (XXIV.4)
Seneca then reminds Lucilius of Cato’s own suicide, and the fact that he retired to his room for the last time in the company of a book by Plato and his dagger, “the one so that he would be willing to die, the other so that he would be able.” (XXIV.6) And a few lines later we also find the famous description of Cato’s last hour that has become standard Stoic lore: when his self-inflicted wound was about to be held in place by his physician, who had rushed into the room, Cato literally tore his guts from himself, throwing them on the floor and thus accomplishing his goal.
Of course, not many of us are likely to ever face a tyrant in battle, or to be sent into exile for having done the right thing. But these examples are meant to remind us that others have withstood far more difficult situations than the one that may be keeping us up at night right now. If they were able to summon so much courage and do the right thing, surely so can we? If it isn’t Caesar you are facing in the battlefield, but rather your boss who is unfairly berating a coworker, does it really take that much effort to stand up and say the right thing?
The letter also containes with the following advice:
“Your clear conscience gives reason to be confident; still, since many external factors have a bearing on the outcome, hope for the best but prepare yourself for the worst. Remember above all to get rid of the commotion. Observe what each thing has inside, and you will learn: there is nothing to fear in your affairs but fear itself.” (XXIV.12)
That last phrase, of course, was repeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt on the occasion of his inaugural address, on 4 March 1933, without attribution. Roosevelt was telling his fellow Americans, still in the midst of the great depression, that they had to endure and refuse to be paralyzed by unjustified terrors, relying instead on reason to overcome their problems and prosper again. How very Stoic of him.
Later on Seneca reminds his friend that whatever we may have to endure, others have alredy done it, and if someone else bore it well, so can we:
“‘I shall become poor.’ I will be one among many. ‘I shall be exiled.’ I’ll think of myself as a native of my place of exile. ‘I shall be bound.’ What of it? Am I now unfettered? Nature has chained me to this heavy weight that is my body. ‘I shall die.’ What you are saying is this: I shall no longer be susceptible to illness, to imprisonment, to death.” (XXIV.17)
A remarkable call to Stoic resilience, followed by an even more remarkable section in which Seneca says that fear of the afterlife is for children, or for simple minded people who actually believe in Cerberus, the hound of Hades who guards the entrance to the Underworld. In reality,
“Death either consumes us or sets us free. If we are released, then better things await us once our burden is removed; if we are consumed, then nothing is waiting for us at all: both goods and evils are gone. … We die every day, for every day some part of life is taken from us. Even when we are still growing, our life is shrinking. ” (XXIV.18, 20)
After citing (favorably) Epicurus, ad he often does in his early letters, Seneca says that a person of courage does neither love nor hate life, and knows when it is time to leave the party (as Epictetus would later put it). By the end, he sounds almost existentialist, or even nihilist, though he attributes to unspecified “others” this parting thought:
“‘How much more of the same things? I mean, how long will I wake and sleep, eat and grow hungry, grow cold and grow hot? Nothing has an ending: everything is connected to the rest of the world. Things chase each other in succession: night comes on the heels of day, day on the heels of night; summer yields to autumn, autumn is followed hard by winter, which then gives way to spring. Everything passes only to return. I do nothing that is new, see nothing that is new. Sometimes this too produces nausea.’ There are many who feel, not that life is hard, but that it is pointless.” (XXIV.26)